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Felon voting bill moving in House; blocked in Senate

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People vote at Bloomington City Hall in Bloomington.
People vote at Bloomington City Hall in Bloomington in November 2018.
Angela Jimenez for MPR News 2018

Legislation to restore the voting rights of convicted felons once they are no longer behind bars cleared its first test in the Minnesota House Wednesday. But despite promising prospects for passage in the DFL-controlled House, the bill faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, knows first-hand the challenges faced by convicted felons — he is one. Dehn's trouble with the law came as a teenager. He won a pardon as an adult. As a state legislator, Dehn wants Minnesotans in similar circumstances to vote again sooner than is allowed under current law.

Several people spoke in favor of Dehn's bill. No one testified against it.

Rob Stewart, of Owatonna, Minn., said he spent years trying to get his life back on track after a felony drug conviction. But Stewart, who now works for the group Second Chance Coalition, told lawmakers that being ineligible to vote made it hard.

"Every election became a reminder that I was an outsider, that I wasn't included as part of my community — of our community — and that my voice didn't matter," he said. "To be perfectly honest, I was tempted to check out and stop caring."

Current law prevents felons from voting until they complete all aspects of their sentence, including probation. There is no requirement for state officials to notify felons when their voting rights are restored.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said that's too confusing. Simon said as a candidate for office, he regularly ran into people who wrongly believed they could not vote.

"They would say, 'You sound great. You would have my vote, but I can't vote for you.' And I would say, 'Why not?' And they'd say, 'Well, I committed a felony 20 years ago,'" Simon said. "And I'd say, 'Oh, are you still under a probationary sentence or on supervised release of something?' [They would say,] 'Oh no, I've been off paper for 10 years.' In other words, for 10 years they could have voted but didn't."

In addition, some felons vote when they aren't supposed to. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said confusion about the current law makes it hard to enforce.

"It's expensive, and we end up prosecuting three or four people a year, and they receive public service," he said. "It really is a law that should not be on the books."

DFL House leaders expect to pass the bill this session. It also has the support of Gov. Tim Walz, whose wife, Gwen, is publicly advocating for the measure.

But there is strong resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"We're not going to be taking it up this year," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, which would be the first stop for a companion bill introduced last week.

Limmer said he is interested in changes to the state's probation system to reduce the length of terms for some felons. He said that could help some felons vote again sooner.

But he said he is unconvinced that the proposed change would impact recidivism. Limmer said his focus this session will be on victims of crime rather than felons.

"I have no one in my district ever calling me saying, 'Let's give felons — after they've victimized our citizens — the right to vote," he said.